In search of “nones”

newsweek-cover-decline-of-christianityCathy Lynn Grossman of USA TODAY caught our attention with this recent story: "People with 'no religion' gain on major denominations."

Americans who don't identify with any religion are now 15% of the USA, but trends in a new study shows they could one day surpass the nation's largest denominations--including Catholics, now 24% of the nation....

(Barry) Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., directed three editions of the American Religious Identification Survey over 18 years. The 2008 ARIS, based on a sampling of 54,000 U.S. adults, also burrowed in for a closer look at 1,106 Nones, who answered extra questions about their beliefs and behaviors and views on God.

Articles based on surveys pose unique challenges. The Spring 2009 issue of Trinity's Religion in the News features "Our Excellent ARIS Adventure," a fascinating article by Mark Silk about the uses and abuses of the ARIS data, particularly news stories on the "sudden" rise of the nones:

That finding was canonized in "The End of Christian America," Newsweek's April 4 cover story by editor John Meacham. Not since Time's April 8, 1966 "Is God Dead?" cover has so stark a religious message adorned an American newsweekly. It put Trinity ARIS right up there with Time's notorious Death of God theologians.

But in fact, the increase in no-religion Americans--the "Nones"--was not really news. It was the 2001 ARIS, the second of the surveys, that registered the big bump (to 14.1 percent). Since 2001, the proportion of Nones has grown by less than one point—and Christian self-identification has declined by less than one (with the actual number of self-identified American Christians increasing by over 450 thousand).

Grossman's USA TODAY story quotes Kosmin as saying the spiritual profile of the nones resembles that of America's founders:

"They're a stew of agnostics, deists and rationalists. They sound more like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Their very interesting enlightenment approach is like the Founding Fathers' kind: Skeptical about organized religion and clerics while still holding to an idea of God."

Grossman also included this intriguing observation:

One quirky fact: 33% of Nones claim Irish ancestry, although the U.S. Census says only 10% of the USA does.

If you want to understand the Irish nones, listen to Flogging Molly (as I did last Saturday at their stellar Red Rocks Ampitheatre appearance), particularly their rocking anthem for Irish-Catholic nones, "Rebels Of The Sacred Heart."

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